US President George W. Bush made clear in a private meeting this week that he was concerned about the lack of progress in Iraq and frustrated that the new Iraqi government -- and the Iraqi people -- had not shown greater public support for the American mission, participants in the meeting said on Tuesday.
Those who attended a Monday lunch at the Pentagon that included the president's war Cabinet and several outside experts said that Bush carefully avoided expressing a clear personal view of new Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki.
But in what participants described as a telling line of questioning, Bush did ask each of the academic experts on Iraq for their assessment of the prime minister's effectiveness.
"I sensed a frustration with the lack of progress on the bigger picture of Iraq generally -- that we continue to lose a lot of lives, it continues to sap our budget," said one person who attended the meeting.
"The president wants the people in Iraq to get more on board to bring success," the person said.
Another person who attended the session said he interpreted Bush's comments less as an expression of frustration than as uncertainty over the prospects of the new Iraqi government.
"He said he really didn't quite have a sense yet of how effective the government was," said this person, who, like several who discussed the session, only agreed to speak anonymously because it was a private lunch.
More generally, the participants said, the president expressed frustration that Iraqis had not come to appreciate the sacrifices the US had made in Iraq, and was puzzled as to how a recent anti-American rally in support of Hezbollah in Baghdad could draw such a large crowd.
"I do think he was frustrated about why 10,000 Shiites would go into the streets and demonstrate against the United States," said another person who attended.
The White House would not comment on the details of the discussion but a senior official warned against drawing conclusions on what the president thinks based on questions he asked in the process of drawing out the invited guests.
Participants said that Bush appeared serious and engaged during the lunch, which lasted more than 90 minutes, as the experts went through a lengthy discussion of the political, ethnic, religious and security challenges in Iraq. And through it all, Bush showed no signs of veering from the administration's policies to support the new government and train Iraqi security forces to take over the fight, and only then bring US troops home.